A fatal crash that killed four people and injured two others on Easter has given new impetus to a state senator’s efforts to beef up Nebraska’s seat belt law.
Sen. Bob Krist said he’ll introduce legislation next year that would make violating seat belt laws a primary offense. It would mean law enforcement officers could stop and ticket drivers solely for not buckling up.
Under current law, drivers can be ticketed for failing to use a seat belt only after they have been stopped for another violation.
Krist is especially concerned after a fatal crash near Valley on April 5. None of the six people involved in the crash was wearing a seat belt.
Nebraska is one of 15 states with only a secondary seat belt law on the books.
Changes have been proposed over the years — most recently by Krist and former Sen. John Harms of Scottsbluff in 2013 — but never passed.
And it’s too late to introduce a bill during the current legislative session, which ends in June.
Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha has opposed changing the law, saying he worries that the violation would be used as an excuse for racial profiling in Omaha.
But Krist, also of Omaha, said making seat belt violations a primary offense would save lives throughout the state — which he believes is more important.
“There are some government mandates that are needed for the safety of our citizens, and this is one of them,” he said.
Three vehicles were involved in the Easter Sunday crash at 252nd Street and Nebraska Highway 36 near Valley. Killed were Amber Wood, 40, of Blair and Jason Miller, 49, of Valley, and John and Dorine Prusa, ages 57 and 55, respectively, of Howells, Nebraska.
Jacob Olson, 17, and Madison Keith, 16, both of Gretna, were taken to the Nebraska Medical Center, treated for injuries and released.
Authorities are still investigating the crash; they said Olson ran a stop sign. He has not been charged.
According to the Nebraska Office of Highway Safety, 74 percent of fatal crash victims since 1993 weren’t wearing seat belts.
In Iowa, the percentage of fatal crash victims who weren’t belted was approximately 43 percent going back to 2004. Figures going back to 1993 were not available, though state safety officials said they have remained consistently lower than in Nebraska.
That’s because, they say, Iowa has had a primary seat belt law since 1986. It’s one of 34 states whose law enforcement officers can stop a driver for failing to buckle up. New Hampshire has neither a primary nor secondary seat belt law for adults, though the state has a primary seat belt law that applies to any driver or passenger under age 18.
The fine in Iowa is $50. In Nebraska it’s half that — $25.
In both states, seat belts are required for anybody in a front seat and children in the back seat. Besides making violations a primary offense, Krist also hopes to require seat belts for everybody in a vehicle, regardless of age or location.
Last year, 8,899 people were convicted of seat belt violations in Nebraska.
Iowa has a higher compliance rate for seat belt use than Nebraska — 93 percent, compared with 79 percent.
“Really, if you look at states that have a primary law, their compliance rates are higher and their fatals are lower,” said Patrick Hoye, director of the Iowa Governor’s Traffic Safety Bureau. “Seat belt use is a major bullet that saves lives. Without question.”
Fred Zwonechek, Nebraska’s highway safety administrator, said that of the 59 fatal accidents in the state so far this year, 49 of those who died were not buckled up. At least 17 were thrown from their vehicles upon impact.
“If you’re driving at higher speeds, and something bad happens, the laws of physics apply,” Zwonechek said. “You lose control, are more likely to roll over and be ejected from the car.”
Many people who don’t comply with the current law live in rural areas, Zwonechek said, and don’t often drive in traffic like motorists do in Omaha and Lincoln.
“The mindset is difficult for me to understand,” he said. Rural Nebraskans “don’t believe it’s ever going to happen to them, because they are out in the open and have never been in a crash.”
But a lack of seat belt compliance can be an urban problem, too, authorities said.
Sgt. Doug Klein, a crash investigator with the Omaha Police Department, said that of the city’s 11 fatal accidents so far this year, six of the victims were unbelted.
Last year, there were 32 fatal accidents in Omaha. Klein said 14 of those killed were not wearing seat belts.
“It is very frustrating,” he said. “I see a lot of accidents where victims have been killed when they were ejected from the vehicle. Oftentimes, the trauma from that itself is what kills them. The crash itself would have been survivable if they had been belted in.”
Added Klein: “In my 19 years as a police officer and seven years as an accident investigator, I have never seen a victim who was ‘saved’ by being thrown clear of a vehicle involved in a crash.”
Chambers said he wasn’t likely to change his longtime opposition to such bills. Other senators have argued that people should have the freedom to decide whether to wear seat belts.
“I’ll unbuckle that belt when we get to it,” Chambers said. “You can’t make people use a safety belt, even by making it a primary offense. It will result in more tickets being written.”
But advocates of a change in state law see no reason to risk the loss of human life.
“These things happen in a split second,” Zwonechek said. “It’s too late to get your belt on in that time.”
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